A Conversation with KT Tunstall
Mike Ragogna: Your new album Tiger Suit is a wonderful mix of organics and synths.
KT: Thank you.
MR: What was the motivation behind recording a project like this?
KT: Yeah, basically, the title of the album is based partly on a recurring dream I've had since I was a kid, where there's a tiger in my garden and I'm stroking this amazing tiger. Then, I go into my house, and it's not until I look at the tiger through my window that I am completely seized with fear and think, "What was I thinking? I could have been killed." I can't see myself in the dream, and I'm like, "Am I a tiger as well. Am I disguised as one?" Something's going on where I can communicate with the incredible beast, and I'm safe. I relate to the dream in terms of how I have always approached music, and life a lot of the time, where I sort of just do it and worry about it later. It's also just about acknowledging the kind of armor you put on as a performer because I don't have a character on stage, I go on stage as myself. But there is definitely this kind of augmented version, where it's like, "I am the warrior, and I'm going to be who I want to be on stage." (laughs) But then also, acknowledging that I really need to take that off when I am writing songs. So, all in all, the album kind of ended up with a wilder streak, I think, than I've had before.
MR: You wrote, and I'm quoting from a press release here, "a staggering seventy-five songs" for this project?
KT: It was really unexpected as well because I don't write on tour. I find it really difficult because it's way too distracting and there's much fun to be had. I'd been touring for about six years solidly and really had only taken a bit of time out to write the second album, but not as much as I would have liked. So, for this, I just knew that I had to take time out to write material, and I just purged it. It's like it had been stored up for all those years.
MR: How does one choose an album out of seventy-five songs?
KT: I know, right? So, that was kind of a little daunting, but weirdly I think--and this is where I'm such a big fan of the album as a piece of work--that a forty or forty-five minute experience is so great for the human brain. That you can listen from start to finish, it keeps your attention, and you get this beautiful collection of stuff. Now that people kind of download one or two songs, so many people's favorite song is an album track. I just think the album is such a great thing, and in the end, me, my record label boss, my manager, and Jim Abbiss, my producer, listened to all this stuff and said, "Okay, let's come back in two day's time with a Top Ten." It was really obvious which songs were working with which songs. They were kind of grouping together naturally, and they all had a kind of vibe about them.
MR: Again, the organic process taking over.
KT: Yeah, exactly.
MR: I hear you recorded your demos for these in your solar-powered studio, is that right?
KT: I did. I built a studio during the year I took out, and it's really cool. (laughs) It's been my lifelong dream to have my own studio, and it's amazing to have that self-sufficiency on top of it.
MR: You start the album with "Uummannaq Song." Could you go into the story behind it?
KT: Yeah. Uummannaq is this little village up in Greenland in the Arctic Circle, and I had taken a trip there with a climate change group called Cape Farewell, who are great. They took up twenty scientists and twenty artists on a boat for ten days, and I am on this boat with Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Carlton, Feist, Martha Wainwright, and Robyn Hitchcock. It was an amazing group of people, and it was kind of this real love-hate thing, where I made such good friends with people on that, it was a really enriching beautiful experience, and the landscape was incredible--some of the most amazing landscape I've ever seen. We saw the northern lights, we saw whales, and it was just beautiful. At the same time, that was the first traveling I did at the beginning of taking my time out, so I also knew I had this mountain to climb to make an album that was really going to turn me on and get me excited about what I was doing. I'm surrounded by these incredible artists, and I was like, "Oh my God, I'm rubbish, I'm a jingle writer." My ego just got out a bit and started to attack me. The song really was about a moment that I had where it just seemed more appealing to get off the boat and stay there rather than get back on and just live in this incredible place for a while and take time out from the madness that I'd been in for a few years.
MR: KT, you were nominated for a Grammy for "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree."
KT: I was. The whole thing's been such a ride, and most of it incredibly positive. But as with anything, there are moments where it can get pretty hard. You miss your friends and family, you leave home for two years at a time...but I can't complain. It's an amazing way to spend my life.
MR: Now, your single "Fade Like A Shadow," I think might be one of the best representations of what you did with this album as far as combining organics with a synth approach. How did you come to this style, either as a songwriter or when it came to the production process?
KT: The song is kind of like an exorcism because I'd met someone who'd just had this completely negative effect on me to the point where even though they were still alive, I just felt kind of haunted by them, and I just felt their presence. I couldn't shake it off and I ended up wearing a shirt with their name on it to kind of exorcise the ghost, and I guess I did it by writing this song about it. So, the song is kind of like this empowering means to and end of getting rid of this thing. In terms of the production, one of the things that was great for me on this album was recording a lot of live--most of it live. So, what sounds like a drum machine snare, is actually a snare with a cymbal on top of it, and trying to recreate some of those dance sounds quite organically, and then afterwards, adding some of that synth quality. It was just so much fun playing live in Hansa in Berlin, the studio where Bowie recorded Heroes, and all of us were just playing for our lives to be as great as Bowie.
MR: That's an amazing place. U2 recorded there too, right?
KT: They did, they did Achtung Baby over there. It's got quite a legacy, and it's an amazing place.
MR: There's a video for your single "Fade Like A Shadow" that was directed by Paul Minor?
KT: Yeah, I love Paul. He's just such a fantastic guy to work with. It was funny because I have a different single here in the U.K., and we recorded the U.K. single in Tennessee and we filmed the American single in London.
MR: And your U.K. single is "(Still A) Weirdo"?
KT: Yeah, exactly.
MR: How is that doing over there?
KT: It's doing good. I just thought it was such a bizarre decision to release the little runt puppy of the album because it's really just a fragile, eccentric, little song. The U.K. guys were just like, "Listen, it's so different from everything else out there, and it's really emotional." And I think that's the same with "Fade Like A Shadow"--it's an emotional song. It's a very emotional album for me, actually.
MR: Now, I would say you're a prolific singer-songwriter because I tend to go there when I describe somebody who is working in the art the way you are.
KT: Yeah, my only issue with it is that sometimes people have a habit of using "singer-songwriter" as a genre of music. I just don't feel like that is fair because I think that...we were talking about Bowie? I mean Bowie is a singer-songwriter, PJ Harvey is a singer-songwriter. So, I just get kind of frustrated when we get bagged into this kind of self-help, therapy, Phoebe from friends singing "Smelly Cat" genre. I don't feel like that.
MR: (laughs) That's exactly right. The stereotype is very "Kumbaya" isn't it.
KT: Exactly. I ain't no "Kumbaya" singer.
MR: No, you ain't. (laughs) You've had many hits--"Black Horse And The Cherry Tree," "Suddenly I See," and "Other Side Of The World," a few more. As you've been progressing, you now have a certain maturity as an artist. How do you feel like you have evolved from the beginning to this point?
KT: Well, there are three major things that happened. Making this record was a pretty profound experience for me, and it was a really important album for me. The first thing was, I think for the first time, I genuinely stopped caring about what anybody wanted from me. I think it's a process of learning how to do that because, at first, you're new, you're signed to a label, they're excited about you, and although I've always done what I wanted to do, I've felt a pressure of what people might want. I don't think it's affected what I've recorded, but it's affected how I've felt about it. This time around I was like, "You know? I can't worry about what fans might want." It's an accumulating thing because at the beginning of the first record, I had no idea anyone was going to listen to it at all, and so now on my third record. I know that people are waiting to hear what I'm going to do and I just thought, "I don't want to people-please, I want to please myself and excite myself," so that was a big thing. The second big thing was, for the first time, I really fell in love with working in a studio. I had never really enjoyed it before because it was always a really alien environment. I think that, first of all, recording with a live band and recording my vocals live and then getting a lot more experimental with the electronica, I got that kind of Brian Eno-itis, where I understood how to enjoy myself in a studio. Thirdly, I just feel like I really let go with my vocal. This album is much less about technical perfection and much more about a kind of wilder expression, which has been such a joy for me.
MR: Nice. Do you have any advice for new artists?
KT: Well, Robert Smith gave out a great piece of advice, and that was, "Never, ever take any advice from anyone."
KT & MR: (laughs)
KT: The only piece of advice I would offer is whatever you do, go out and gig. Get out and learn the craft on a stage, and learn how to put on a good show because I think that that's really the be-all and end-all of being a musician.
1. Uummannaq Song
2. Glamour Puss
3. Push That Knot Away
5. Fade Like A Shadow
7. Golden Frames
8. Come On, Get In
9. (Still A) Weirdo
10. Madame Trudeaux
11. The Entertainer
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Dar Williams
Mike Ragogna: Dar, thank you so much for calling in to--I love saying this, especially to you--solar-powered KRUU-FM.
Dar Williams: No way! That's the future, man. Thank you for paving the way.
MR: We're the only solar powered radio station in the Midwest, and it seems bizarre to me that there are so few of them. I think in the whole country, there are only something like fourteen or fifteen.
DW: Well, there's definitely one in Taos that we've been hearing about for quite a long time, but I just feel like this is going to take off. I know people are skeptical, but there is going to be a tipping point, and it does take its pioneers, which actually seem to be mostly in the Midwest. Every time I come out to the Midwest, people are like, "Oh yeah, I was reading about bio-diesel, so I tried it, and my car blew up, but then I tried another batch and it was fine." People just do stuff, they don't just talk about it. So, I'm not surprised that the leadership is coming from your neck of the woods.
MR: Well, thank you for saying that. I think we have a pretty strong sustainable living presence, particularly in this community. That's another one of those things that people have to figure out, though people can barely recycle. I mean, it's very good that those people who do recycle, do recycle--I don't want to make that sound trivial. But we have to really step everything up at this point.
DW: That's well put. When you put your imported olives into your non-disposable shopping bag, it still counts. My thing is, how can we do it as efficiently as possible? How do we convert to sustainability while still having a lot of fun. Actually, I heard this thing that if we all live like they do in Europe, the whole planet could be the way Europe is. If the whole planet became like the United States, we'd go under pretty fast, apparently, but that's what the studies say. And that's just seasonal produce used in your cooking, which is kind of fun; public transportation, which we can do, walking places, and a few more bicycles. There's nothing wrong with that lifestyle. I can live that lifestyle. So, that made it a lot less scary for me, and I do think that we are going to make it, but we do have to be pretty crafty and clever about it.
MR: Sometimes, I think it gets overwhelming for people because we have issues like global warming that are staring us in the face, and we're not moving fast enough on things like that, so I think people back off.
DW: Exactly. I live in a pedestrian town, and not everybody has that, although I hope there is more of a return because it's really fun. You see the people you know...I walk my son to school, and we have nice conversations, like he said, "You know what I think our first gift is to each other?" I said, "What?" And he said, "Out names." So, we walk to school, and that's good for me, to get off my butt and walk with my son. We walk to the daycare, walk to the daycare, and then I walk to the train, and the train brings me into New York City, and that's its own hive of sustainable living. Apparently, New York is a model in a lot of ways. So, I don't know, it's pretty sustainable, and if this is the way I'm living--it's not killing me. It's not scaring me and it's not killing me, and we have a big garden outside the house, which also didn't kill me. I bought a few things, and I stuck them in the ground, you know? I'm no master gardener. So, I kind of feel like what I'm trying to model is this generation of people who are saying, "Actually, I don't want to suffer too much, and I don't want to be overwhelmed, so I'm just going to kind of live a nice low-key life with things that are actually better for me.
MR: Now, you have a new album called Many Great Companions. It's gauche to call it a greatest hits, so what would you call it?
DW: Somebody said, "If you want to do a greatest hits, but you've never had a hit, you should call it a 'best of .'" For me, it's a collection of songs that kind of show the breadth of where I've been and maybe where the world has been a little bit over the last fifteen years. It's a collection, and then we re-recorded twelve of the songs to literally revisit them. I sort of hand-chose the ones to re-record. Someone said, "Okay, now we're going to play, 'When I Was A Boy.'" This was '97, so it's already thirteen years ago, and I was listening to them playing it and when it was done I said, "Is there a problem with the phones?" And they said, "No, you're hearing what we heard." I said, "My voice has changed so much in the four years since I recorded that that it sounds like a different person, and it sounds kind of mechanically different to me. So, I've been itching to re-record these things for fifteen years now. So, we went in and re-did "When I Was A Boy," but we also have the original because some people got attached to the original; and then I re-did the song about my old babysitter, and then for a couple that were very produced on other albums, we went back and re-did, just to give it a narrative without a lot of orchestration. It was meaningful for me. I did it with Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, and he loves simplicity too, and not overdoing anything. So, it was great to revisit just the words, and put them down, and think about all the ways that I've performed it and all the miles that these songs have gone. That's really the main part of the record, is the twelve songs. Then, Razor & Tie said, "But we also want to have just a collection of the last fifteen years for people who want to introduce their girlfriends and boyfriends to your music and want that sort of one-off snapshot of the artist to have." So, we did that too.
MR: I absolutely loved the original version of "What Do You Hear In These Sounds?" but I also love the new take on it. What's cool about that song is that there was so much in the narrative that its original production seems somewhat distracting after you compare it to the new recording. Dar, how do you feel about the diversity of your fans and their different perspectives on your music?
DW: It's fun for me to see. I remember really early on I opened for Ani DiFranco, and that audience was really fun. I was auditioning for my booking agents and somebody had seen me at their college and requested a song. I thought, "Yeah, this is a crowd I feel very comfortable with." Then, they brought me back and I opened for Arlo Guthrie, and I just knew that "listening" crowd--really game, and hip, and out to hear live music, my parents' friends--were cool, lived in the city, and went out for concerts, and I felt very comfortable with them. So, I thought, "Well, I love them. I hope they love me." Then, I went (touring) with Joan Baez and something happened, I think for both of us. I won't speak for Joan, but she had just done some really great albums, and her manager came up with this idea of her coupling her with opening acts that were really up-and-coming. This idea of her manager going out with her, finding these artists playing in the invigorated coffee house scene and bringing them on board...but I was the first. This was also when the Internet was taking off, so people were really enjoying being able to find their own music, and there was this idea of, "We can do this ourselves. We can decide for ourselves who we want to listen to." So, I was the poster child of self-reliance and the audience's say. So, they said, "We'll take you with us. You've got this little ground swell." People came out and said, "I haven't really seen Joan Baez in a while, I really want to go to this thing." And then their kids would be like, "There's this kid named Dar Williams, and I think I'll go see her, so if you pay for the tickets, mom and dad, I'll come to the Joan Baez concert." (laughs) All these folks showed up with their kids--kids in their teens and kids in their twenties. It was great. I just saw this whole intergenerational thing with the kids being turned onto Joan, and their parents are saying, "Oh, this is acceptable. This is kind of like what Joan does" about me. That cemented this kind of diversity, and unity of audiences. Then, because of "The Christians And The Pagans," and because of the song about the Berrigan brothers who were Jesuit priests, that brought some really wonderful people into the audiences, with great stories about holding the Berrigan's bail money for them for when they went to jail. So, the audience grew around the seams as well, which was extremely fun, and everybody had a lot of stories to bring. Then, not really singing about being a woman, but singing about gender as a possibility rather than a limitation--the nineties was a good time to be singing about that--that brought a really interesting crowd across all age ranges and orientations to the shows.
MR: That Joan Baez moment...
DW: Yeah, that was a big one. I'm sure that made its ripples across the office.
MR: It sure did. Of course, I remember that Razor & Tie's co-founder Cliff Chenfeld's mom was the world's biggest Joan Baez fan.
DW: Yeah, I think she got down on her knees. There were two or three people who literally got on their knees and said, "I'm not worthy," when they met Joan Baez, and I believe Cliff's mom was one of them. Or maybe she just kissed her hand. The owner of Razor & Tie's mom has more bumper stickers on the back of her car than anyone I've seen. She is a true, classic, committed, community activist, and that was quite a moment.
MR: She was one of my favorite people on the planet. I remember I used to look forward to Cliff's mom coming to the office.
DW: She was and is a very fun person to add into the mix of a record company that I'm a part of. She comes to concerts. Her now deceased husband, Howard, went to a coffee house with me after one of my concerts and said, "I wrote a poem called Mim," which is (Cliff's mother's) name, "may I read it to you?" So, he read me this poem he wrote about how beautiful she was in the garden.
MR: What a life.
DW: And what a life I have. This is directly related to the paperclips and staples of my life. This is part of my working life.
MR: Yeah, that's a beautiful thing. Dar, you've really reached out to a lot of people. As you mentioned, it's not just about the diversity of the people and the groups, but you also have been very thoughtful. For instance, you were one of the first artists to have eco-friendly packaging. You insisted that we do recyclable packaging for your Razor & Tie releases.
DW: Yeah, and Razor & Tie met be halfway, which was great. I was like, "If only I could guarantee that I'd sell a million units, we could talk about hemp." These things hadn't even been invented yet. What was nice is that Razor & Tie said, "Look, we're only going to sell this much, and what you're asking for doesn't exist yet..." (laughs) "...and we can't convince someone to invent something for you if you're going to be a person who has chosen the path that you have, which is that you're happy to sell in the six digits instead of seven digits." Yeah, the paper digipak is definitely something that's evolved, and I hope that because I was part of the wave of people using it, it got it out there more over the breakable jewel cases. You know, there are things that you can do that evolve the practice. And Razor & Tie said, "Yeah, we're an indie label, you're an indie artist, we'll participate." It was very cool because I got the little spreadsheet on how much more it would cost and who would shoulder which burden. It's not huge, but if you feel sort of organically connected to your label, you can have that kind of discussion and we did. And then, there were a lot of doors that shut for both of us because we weren't, you know, Sony.
MR: Yeah, but what are you going to do.
DW: We are now...Sony.
MR: That's right, Sony distribution. "As Cool As I Am" was one of your singles. Can we go into the story behind it?
DW: Yes, "As Cool As I Am" was inspired by three people. My friend had an icky boyfriend--my friend is quite conventionally beautiful, and she had this boyfriend who would never tell her anything, and actually, would always talk about how beautiful other women were. She said it was about power. It had nothing to do with what he believed in, it was just his way of keeping her until she dumped him. He finally did kind of lay it bare and say that he loved her, but it was too late, he had insulted her and freaked her out so much. I was like, "Why did it take her so long?" Then, I found myself in a very similar situation and the things that were said to my face astounded me. There was very little effort to disguise the fact that there was a power agenda, and I still felt bad. It still hurt my feelings, freaked me out, and made me scrutinize things, so I said, "Wow, I'd better just preemptively dump this person before it gets worse." Of course, he was horrendously mean about the break up, so I thought, "Geez, this hurts, and boy is this common," because he was relying on a lot of the tried and true techniques in relationships. Then, there was actually a female couple that was just being really underhanded with each other because they were destined to break up. One of them said, "I'm going to go out and do a little tour with Dar, and we're going to have so much fun." She was almost insinuating that something was going to happen, which it wasn't because I'm totally straight. I thought, "I know what you're doing." I didn't call her on it right on the spot, but I was like, "I think you're trying to make your girlfriend jealous with me." It just kept on coming up, and it seemed all over the place. Again, I thought if I say, "This is a power thing. I will not be afraid of women. Go take a hike," I'm still going to sound jealous and defensive. I wrote the song and all these folks came up to me to say they heard the strength and the moving on, and not the "ouch" part of it. Again, it was just a much bigger success, especially considering that it came from a place I assumed would make me sound like a wounded, pissy person, but I didn't and I wasn't. So, it came across very directly. The communication was harmonious and as intended.
MR: Dar, for Many Great Companions, it must have been very hard to pick some of these songs over others. What was the process? There seems to be something that unites them all.
DW: Yes, because it's all me. I think a lot of people have this experience where they say, "I don't remember what I look like and I don't remember who I am when I'm not looking in a mirror. I just don't know what people see when they see me." I have that, and listening to these songs it's like, "Oh, I know why that is such a fruitless question. It's a useless question. You're all over the map and it's still you." So, the songs, at least, kind of create these subtle little fence posts around a pretty large and out of control pasture. I got a sense that it all fits, and that they are fence posts of a unified thing, but that it's a pretty varied terrain. I should probably just roll and know that I'm never really going to know exactly what the perimeter is.
MR: A lot of these are very personal, of course.
DW: Well, it's my life, that's the uniting thing...it's my life. Time is what unites it, not any great unity in my character necessarily.
MR: Another of my favorites is "You Rise And Meet The Day." What's this song's back story?
DW: I guess as I hit revelations, I'm curious about them, and that's a good characteristic to have in one's life. They sort of hit me at a certain angle, and I do want to kind of get in them a little more. I'm a real person that thinks if you walk into a studio and you're not feeling it, then you've got to go take a break, drink some coffee, have a conversation, and then when you're feeling it, if your voice isn't quite there, you've got to spend some time humming. It's very much an attitude of "if it's not feeling right, don't do it." Well, my husband is a builder, which means he gets up at dawn, works twelve hours, keeps on pounding away, feels hungry and wants to go home. But the wall is half built, and he only knows how to build a whole wall, so he just builds it. I was like, "That's so unhealthy, that's so crazy, that's so admirable, that's so great." I think that's something that I could really learn from. So, I wrote that song because he shows this kind of loyalty to a lot of things that made me feel like this is going to be a really good marriage. I should take his cue, and I did--we got married and I did take his cue. There are a lot of things that we do. We have a lot of people over to our house, we have big dinners, and we kind of grow our roots and commit to it, then we clean up all the dishes and do it all over again. It's kind of interesting to spiral into my home as opposed to my job, which has me spiraling out all the time. So, it's a love song, and it's also a song of admiration.
MR: Nice. How did you choose your great companions on this record, folks like Gary Louris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Patty Larkin?
DW: The good news is that you can leave a lot to the song. I was talking to my manager, and I said, "The one thing that I know is that I'm hearing Mary Chapin Carpenter on 'The One Who Knows.'" Alison Krauss did it originally, which was great, but for this, because I'm friends with Chapin--we have this history, and we've sung it together before--I just wanted to make this happen. My manager was like, "Absolutely." So, that was pretty set in stone on our end. Of course, she's so gracious, she said yes. Patty Larkin is someone I've spent a lot of time with. My husband did a building project on Cape Cod, and it turned out we were living four doors down from Patty, Bet, and their kids, and it was a really big deal. I was becoming a mother during the time, and they were raising one daughter, and on their way to raising a second. It was a very important thing, and I just thought, "Well, Patty is one of my most important friends, and 'When I Was A Boy' was one of my most important songs." So, that was really great, that she said yes to that. Gary was available and we had co-written a song. Russel, who managed him at the time, said, "I think Gary would just come out and do this with you." I just flipped because this was a simplicity-based project, and he just let the prairie wind blow through an open space if that's what needed to happen--he doesn't push anything. And yet, he loves a good, big harmony, where you can put it too, so it was a really great thing, working with him.
MR: I forgot to mention Sean and Sara Watkins, who you also had on your album.
DW: "The Christians And The Pagans" is the hardest to do without sounding completely hokey, and I wanted something bluegrass-y, but they're very "bluegrass with a twist." Their bluegrass is very widely defined, and we were about to set out on tour when I said, "By the way, can you do this?" And they hit it, you know? They did exactly what I was hoping, and they gave it more of a backbone as opposed to make it sound like what I call a Muppet jug band.
MR: Very nice. "Spring Street" is one of my favorite records ever, and now your revisit makes me love it twice as much.
DW: Well, I was in New England, and New England is so--I wouldn't say masochistic--but it really loves austerity. It's like you keep the soap until the tiniest sliver of soap is in the thing, and you have a shower that kind of hits you with a blast of cold water every couple of minutes. You can't get too comfortable and there's a lot of snow, and New York was kind of offering the opposite because you were able to live a-seasonally. There I was in Soho, seeing that kind of opportunity--you could kind of buy an identity. You could buy a beautiful yoga mat, beautiful candles, and beautiful things not even having to do with yoga. It was intoxicating, and at the same time, I was also kind of gearing-up to leave this relationship, and it was really parallel. It was like, "My life would be easier to move on to a new place, but I don't want you to think that this is just me buying a big beeswax candle and saying I've been doing all the exercises. This is me really understanding that this really stinks and that we were doomed." Just like a flooded river plain, you just rebuild next to the river and we were always living precariously. There was a lot of velocity in that decision, and it was very positive and very mutually agreed upon when I did it. So, it was kind of getting out of some of that austerity, suffer for everything, thinking, and moving forward even without awareness. You never want to be taking your life or people around you for granted.
MR: Beautiful. Dar, I'm in Iowa right now, and you have a song called "Iowa." Let me just leave it right there.
DW: (laughs) Okay, I'm going to tell you something. There's a very undulating part of Iowa--it's very hilly--and it's what we would call biomorphic. It looks like shoulders and hips and boobs, and it's almost a very female, voluptuous landscape. I wrote this line that said, "I've never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could." It's so voluptuous and inviting, and I was basically saying, "I'm straight, but this challenges me." I traveled with that song through Iowa, and the Iowa-ness of Iowa--it's a very special little, purple state. What people are doing, they are really doing. There are organic vineyards, there are awesome co-ops, restaurants, and farms that are just doing new things. So, when I was in Des Moines--I played it recently--I was pretty excited to play "Iowa" in Iowa on July 4th in sort of a patriotic way, but sort of new patriotic way. It was pouring rain, everyone was pretty drunk--even by mid-afternoon--and I went to get some coffee in the rain, but the cafe was packed, so I just sort of stood under the awning and I thought, "This is miserable. Why did I try to get the coffee? Why am I here?" And this guy is like, "Hey, you're Dar Williams." He looked really friendly, just a little bit baked in the sun, but I couldn't get a bead on him. He said, "It's so great that you have a song called Iowa," and I said, "Well, I love Iowa. Congratulations on Vilsack becoming the head of...oh shoot." He said, "...agriculture," and I said, "Oh sure, of course," and he said, "I know this because I'm an organic farmer. We have a CSA, we grow..."--I memorized it at the time because I talked about it on stage--"...one-hundred and twenty-four varieties of vegetables, and we have two-hundred and fifty members of this CSA." I said, "That's what the future is going to look like." He said, "Yep, that's what the future is going to look like, except we're doing it now." He was Dan the Farmer Man, I talked about him on stage, and it was great because he held up his beer when I identified him. There was this kind of sense of Iowa as the new Midwest, and it was completely embodied by this guy at this great festival in a big parking lot on the Kum And Go stage. That sort of sense of possibility, the invited-ness, and the edgy-ness that I was first feeling when I wrote that song kind of had manifested from the actual people, and I thought, "Isn't that perfect, and isn't that kind of what I knew in my heart to expect?" So, I love Iowa, and it's sort of borne itself out in different ways--the land, the people, the ideas, the beauty--and I feel more connected than ever.
MR: Nice. Iowa should adopt "Iowa" as its state anthem.
DW: It was suggested, but it's too personal.
MR: By the way, here in Iowa, we have the equal marriage law.
DW: I know. (laughs) Everybody says, "You've got to mention that if you play Iowa. You've got talk about that a lot." What I kept saying is, "I'm not surprised," because there is a kind of common sense that actually is very progressive, ultimately. So, congrats because I think that's going to make a lot more happy family meals at the end of the day.
MR: Speaking of family meals, "The Christians And The Pagans" has a great story.
DW: I wrote it for a holiday fundraiser. They said, "The best thing for it is kind of a non-traditional song--a holiday song with a twist." I just thought about what I was seeing at American dinner tables, which is that it used to be that one person sat at the head of the table and kind of dictated the whole conversation. If you were Jewish, or gay, or liberal, or in the case of my family, all of those things spread across extended family, then you just kind of didn't say much and found something where you could say like, "Yeah, it was sunny today." Something was changing, though. People were moving over and there were more voices coming out. It was much more like, "Okay, this niece calls herself a witch. I always thought that was evil, but now I guess there's a different way of looking at it." So, I just documented it, and again, I thought, "That's probably not that big of a demographic that I'm addressing." But everybody had that experience, where the oddling group of the family somehow found its way into the conversation, and was embraced. The nineties were good for that. I don't know about the present, but the nineties were good for saying, "I'm different and I'm not a threat." And the response became, "Well, we'll give you some mashed potatoes too." I think it was an extremely positive decade for that.
MR: Dar, what's in your future?
DW: I'm working on a new album, and hopefully, we'll record that sometime early next year. So, the next album will come out in the Fall of '11 if all goes well. I'm working on some other things--I wrote two books for Scholastic about an eleven-year-old, and then a sequel about the same person as a twelve-year-old, and I loved doing that. But it also opened me up to trying different kinds of writing. I'm going to make an audio book of Amalee, which is the book I wrote. So, that's new territory. I'm just trying some new things. They could fail, and that's okay with me. I'm trying some different genres, including audio book narration. I've managed to get myself signed up for a lot of stuff in my town, and a lot of conversations and things are happening, so I'm kind of digging in and then pulling out to the next thing. The next project has a lot to do with egos and power, and just trying to find what's stable with you. It's loosely based on Greek Gods, which sounds pretty nerdy. I have a son, who is six. He is doing well, then we have a daughter who is a year-and-a-half who we adopted from Ethiopia, and she's a pistol. So, I'm guessing that the two of them are going to be making their own demands for what I'm going to be doing with my future. And that's fine, I'll let them lead the way.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists coming up?
DW: I always tell people to go to a place where there's a scene, you know? You can do it in a vacuum, and one could argue that a guy like Elliott Smith, who had such innovative, interesting melodies, was maybe off on his own, but I think he's part of the Hoboken scene. I was part of the Cambridge scene, and we all played together, we did song circles, we gave advice, we had coffee together, we slept together, and it was this whole social scene. There were poets and homeless people coming in and banging on their guitars, so you really got a totally twisty view on what artistry, creativity, and meaning are. It really grew me up to be part of this group. Some people were jealous and told me to quit, some people told me to get a new guitar, some people said, "No, no, your guitar is perfect." But it takes a scene, you know? One boyfriend or girlfriend or one sounding board isn't going to do it. A scene and an audience and then tip jar gigs, and that slow evolution into playing for audiences and playing for college radio stations and stuff like that. I got all of that in Cambridge, and I really don't know what I would have done if I didn't have that. Otherwise, I would have gone into a glass penthouse and had to play in front of a person at a desk, and I don't even know how I would have gotten there. Because of these scenes that were happening and then the scenes of the internet and stuff, instead of there being artists that sold five thousand and artists that sold five million, there was that forest canopy for that middle-sized career that was audience-based and people-based. That's always my first piece of advice.
Then, my second piece of advice is kind of like don't sell out unless you really want to sell out. (laughs) And then, more power to you. If you want to go get the nose job, the boob job, and you want to turbo-charge things and just write to what the audience wants to hear and get the manager who really pushes the door open and gets you singing on every commercial, then do it. But either really find your audience, love your audience, develop your audience, love to travel, and make friends or really do it and just move to one of the three coasts, as we say, and immerse yourself in the commercial enterprise of entertainment and music for entertainment, which is a fine career, and a lot of great philanthropists come out of that world. There is still artistry, but it's maybe with a different goal. I don't even want to demean it, but the soul searching that I see some people doing before they finally say, "Okay, I'm going to go to L.A.," but they kind of do it late. If you're going to do it, do it, but if you're not, figure out what you want and write songs that feel like you're telling the truth.
The song "When I Was A Boy"? I thought I was just writing for me and this girl named Sue on the softball team who was whispered to be a lesbian. Like, of course she was a lesbian. She was a tough, lonely, shy, athletically gifted person who is off on her own and kind of hostile as people are when people are whispering about them and pointing at them. So, I was kind of saying she belongs. We all have parts of ourselves that are like a boy or like a girl, and it turned out to hit a nerve because the nineties were a time when people were saying, "So, I'm wearing a dress now, but I really remember being covered with mud in a swamp and loving it. Does that make me less or more of my gender? Does that matter?" So, that really worked for me. Truthfully, though it might sound weird to the world, it actually worked for me.
1. Calling The Moon
2. If I Wrote You - with Gary Louris
3. Spring Street - with Gary Louris
4. I ll Miss You - with Gary Louris
5. The Christians and The Pagans - with Sara & Sean Watkins
6. What Do You Hear In These Sounds - with Gary Louris
7. The One Who Knows - with Mary Chapin Carpenter
8. The Babysitter's Here
9. As Cool As I Am - with Gary Louris
10. You Rise And Meet the Day - with Gary Louris
11. Iowa - with Gary Louris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sean & Sara Watkins and Motherlode
12. When I Was A Boy - with Patty Larkin
1. It's Alright
2. Are You Out There
3. As Cool as I Am
4. If I Wrote You
6. Mercy of The Fallen
7. The Easy Way
8. The One Who Knows
9. Teen For God
10. After All
11. Book of Love
12. The Beauty of The Rain
13. The Babysitter's Here
14. Better Things
15. Spring Street
16. The Ocean
17. Closer to Me
19. The End of the Summer
20. When I Was a Boy
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with José González
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Jose. Where are you right now?
José González: : I'm home in Gothenburg, Sweden. I'm just about to go on tour.
MR: How long will the tour be and where is it taking you?
JG: It's going to be around one month in Europe, then a short break, then off to the U.S. for three or four weeks.
MR: Nice. In the European leg of the tour, of course, you're going to every country, right?
JG: Yeah, I think so. Almost (laughs).
MR: Every last one, not leaving one European stone unturned. This new album, Fields, by the group, Junip, features you and has some of your best performances. Can you go into how Junip was formed?
JG: The Drummer, Elias Araya, and I have known each other since we were seven, and when we were about fourteen, we started playing together. I was playing bass, he was playing drums, and it was mainly hardcore. So, we did that for a couple of years, and through that music, we met Tobias Winterkorn, who used to sing in a hardcore band, but all of us were interested in other types of music. So, around '98, we started to play together as a trio--guitar, drums, and keyboards--and that's how we started.
MR: Nice. You are known, not by your albums alone, but also from your music being featured in The O.C., One Tree Hill, and other shows. Have you ever seen how some of your music is used in the U.S., and how have you felt about some of those uses?
JG: I actually haven't seen them being used, but it feels good to hear people that are into the shows say the music sets the scene really well. It's a good way to use music, I think, because usually people are in an emotional state.
MR: You really should check out some of the uses of your music. It's usually a turning point in an episode or when there's some emotional development. All of a sudden, hey, there's a Jose Gonzalez song.
JG: (laughs) That's cool.
MR: You were talking about how Junip got together, and you've already released a couple of projects together. You had an EP back in--was it '05?
JG: Yeah, exactly. I went on tour with my solo stuff around '03. At that point, we weren't an active band. We were all doing different stuff--I had been at the University studying chemistry, Elias was studying art, and Tobias was working as a teacher. So, I went on tour, then when I got back, we decided to give it a try, and that's when we recorded the Black Refuge EP. It was supposed to be an album, but my songs started to get a lot of attention, so I decided I would follow up on that attention and go out on tour.
MR: When you had your hardcore band, was that while you were studying for your Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University Of Gothenburg?
JG: Let's see, I started microbiology in '97, so yeah, I was still in the hardcore band for like two more years. It was less and less with the hardcore band, and more with Junip and my solo stuff. But when the studying got harder and took more time, I sort of let go of my ambitions to live for music.
MR: What changed your mind and got you back?
JG: Well, I did the recording with Junip, and a year later, a seven-inch with my solo stuff. Two guys from Stockholm found that seven-inch and decided they wanted to release my stuff. So, I wasn't doing any music around '03, when I started recording for the album. It got released, and it got so much attention in Sweden that I just jumped off of the Ph.D.
MR: There are many people who have come so close to getting a diploma, then all of a sudden, decide it's not what they wanted after all, especially if they're a musician or artist.
MR: Now, Junip and Jose Gonzalez music is very different from your hardcore stuff. Were you just having some fun with the guys?
JG: Yeah, but we were pretty serious. We were doing a lot of recordings, we released a seven-inch, and we were doing a lot of shows around Gothenburg. I think the problem was that we didn't get that much attention. We didn't get a record deal and we didn't want to release it ourselves, so not much happened even though we took it seriously, actually.
MR: Well, the shift in music is amazing. Obviously, you were influenced and practicing because you've got this classical-meets-folk...actually, an amalgam of all sorts of wonderful musics. Who influenced you as a guitarist?
JG: Well, when I started playing guitar, I learned all the chords by playing Bossa Nova and Beatles. I had all these sheets of music and I would go through all the tabs. So, João Gilberto was an inspiration, and I wouldn't say the Beatles because I sort of just played the chords from Beatles songs, it wasn't like actually playing Beatles songs. Apart from them, I usually mention Silvio Rodríguez because he's most similar to my style when I was starting to play. He's a Cuban folk musician, and he used to do all this intricate stuff, and his lyrics were very poetic.
MR: When you look at music in the world, how do you see yourself fitting into that? For instance, we have Jack Johnson here, and Jack Johnson doesn't do anything like what you do. But for whatever reason, we would place you both in the same category or the same genre.
JG: Whenever I'm doing music, whether it's solo or with Junip, it's with the idea of trying to do something that isn't out there. It might be inspired by stuff, so it might be similar, but I'm still trying to do something that, in some way, is unique. For people that might not be into folk music, they might think that it sounds very similar to a lot of stuff. So, I guess it's all about the details. I feel like I'm inspired by various different styles of music and I draw inspiration, rhythmically, from different styles; and then, sound-wise I'm inspired by the '60s, but then I use computer. I guess it's a mixture of everything. With Junip, I didn't want to use electric guitar, for example. When we're playing live and we have a decent PA, we can play pretty loud. But I like the fact that we use nylon string guitar and analog synthesizer. We're trying to get a slightly different sound than what we hear people using.
MR: There's a group out there from a neighboring country called The Kings Of Convenience.
MR: They're a blend of folk, samba and Bossa Nova which is almost counter to the bombastic pop we're listening to in the States. And there's Junip with your own amalgam of very musical influences. Are we Americans missing something maybe in our upbringing with our appreciation of music?
JG: I don't know, but it is interesting. It feels like the bands from Scandinavia are good at finding inspiration and using that inspiration to make similar music, but in a good way, I think. But the styles can be extremely varied, as you mentioned. Gothenburg is known for its death metal, for example. That's like At The Gates. I don't know about upbringing because I think, as a teenager, you have access to a lot of stuff. Now, everybody has it because of the Internet. But before, it was easy to go to the library and borrow some CDs that weren't just classical music--they had all kinds of stuff there. Also, the record shops had a lot of music, so I think it was easy to get into different styles of music.
MR: Speaking of variety of music, you also appear on albums by Zero 7.
MR: How did that come about?
JG: Henry and Sam were working on their third album and they decided they wanted other singers. So, they just phoned me, I met up with them in London, and we got together and wrote some songs. It was great. We did some touring, also.
MR: As far as Junip and your solo career go, does is look like you're going to be doing both simultaneously or are you going to focus on one more than the other over the next few years?
JG: I think, in writing, I want to do both. But in touring, I'll put more effort in Junip, especially this year when we release the album until next summer when we'll be out touring quite a lot, actually. Since I've started writing with Junip, I've gotten a musical boost or an inspirational boost, so I've been writing more stuff than ever, and hopefully, it won't take too long before another Jose album and another Junip album.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists that want to make music their life?
JG: I think the DIY approach is always good to have as a starting musician. First of all, just do the music that you love yourself and not trying to please someone else, but do something that you would buy or listen to. As for more practical stuff, it's good to learn micing techniques, and mixing yourself. There's so much you can do with computers nowadays that you don't have to rely on getting a record label contract. You can do pretty advanced demos and not even call them demos nowadays. So, put effort into getting good at recording and mixing--it's one thing that I think can help emerging artists.
1. In Every Direction
3. Rope & Summit
4. Without You
5. It's Alright
7. Sweet & Bitter
8. Don't Let It Pass
9. Off Point
10. To The Grain
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
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